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On-Site Staff / Program Design, Development, and Quality / Staff Leadership and Management

The Afterschool Escape Room at the 2018 BOOST Conference

Our team is ready. No time for motivational speeches because we must escape!

The moderator starts the clock and says go. The five men and women rush to the desk and start tearing through books, notepads, trinkets, and anything else just laying around. Someone notices a silver key in a terrarium that has a black widow spider in it. We all know that we need the key, but how can we get it without putting ourselves in mortal danger? I mean, this is an afterschool program, right? The spider looks plastic but who can tell?  Wait…there’s a magnet on the desk. Maybe we can use that to get the key? Eureka! The key opens a lockbox and we get our first Jenga piece with the letter S. Now, only three more pieces to go and 15 minutes before our time runs out!

You have just experienced the first 5 minutes of a jam-packed workshop called The Afterschool Escape Room presented at the 2018 BOOST Conference. Only 40 lucky candidates were able to attend the workshop, but I promised those that were turned away that I would blog about the workshop and share all the resources.

First things first, you can download four free Escape Room concepts and a Mini-Escape Room concept from our Padlet found at The Alamo & STEM Escape Rooms were developed by Lauri Celli with Westat in Texas and the Family / Mini Escape Rooms were developed by Teri Wilson with Austin ISD. I was fortunate enough to be the creative producer who provided guidance and created the digital tech. The resources are free but we would ask for credit or attribution along with a request to post your iterations out in the world for free. It all helps the field of afterschool in the long run after all.

Why Escape Rooms? Well, why not? Our job in the afterschool field is to find and use any innovative technique to inspire youth to achieve greatness! Escape Rooms are a perfect venue for doing just that. Most are simply for entertainment or corporate team building. That is why Lauri and I thought we could use the concept in afterschool with youth. Escape Rooms are the height of disguised learning and team building. On a conceptual side, the entire activity lends itself to logical thinking through predicting and analyzing situations. Participants don’t realize that they are creating algorithms of behavior by making steps and rules as they decompose the puzzles they are presented with. Patterns are spotted, abstractions are identified then removed, while participants evaluate variables and make action-oriented judgments.

Debriefing one Escape Room experience is akin to an entire activity around computational thinking.

Embedded in the storyline of Escape Rooms are academic concepts – math puzzles, reading challenges, logic sequencing, science experiments, and even history lessons. In two of the Escape Rooms that we share in our Padlet, you will find historical records around the Alamo and actual Algebraic equations to solve. However, the ultimate value of using Escape Rooms in afterschool is the social-emotional skills that can be explored. Team Building, Compromise, Collaboration, Persuasive Leadership, and Perseverance are just a few that we have explored.

I would encourage you to flip the script and use Escape Rooms as a Project-Based Learning exercise. Have the students develop their own Escape Room and then host a family night where families have to escape! Escape Rooms don’t need to be entire rooms that you lock people inside until they find the solution. We have built them in corners of rooms, on random tables, and even in online presentations. All you need is a good story, a mystery or challenge, and various steps that lead to the “aha” discovery ending in successful “escape.”

Some elements to consider for an Epic Escape Room include:

  • Theme or Story (i.e. locked in a lab during a Zombie pandemic with a cure in a lockbox).
  • Puzzle or Challenge Types (i.e. logic puzzles, riddles, scavenger hunts, cryptography).
  • Hints – everyone gets stuck sometimes and needs a little nudge but not the solution.
  • Red Herrings – if the puzzle is too easy then people get bored, create a challenge.
  • Flow – the activity should not have any dead-ends, build in detours when needed.

If you haven’t ever been through an Escape Room, I encourage you to go for date night or a team-building exercise. I think you will find that this fun activity has so many wonderful applications in afterschool. In our BOOST Conference workshop, the team escaped in record time and the entire room generated more than 100 ideas for brand new experiences. Now that is what I call an Epic Success!

Thanks for letting me share more about Escape Rooms.

Oh, and for breakfast today, I had a Sausage Biscuit and Mountain Dew Ice (because you know, breakfast of champions and all that).

Author: @shawnpetty

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